It has a rather drab name – C/2019 Q4. But this interstellar object, only the second to be observed within our solar system, has gotten astronomers and space scientists excited.
The first interstellar object to be observed within our solar system was the cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua’. It went past our solar system in 2017. With its unusual shape and (what appeared to be) smoke trails resembling rocket engines, many were momentarily excited that Oumuamua could be alien technology. But no such confusions exist about the latest visitor. C/2019 Q4 is a confirmed comet – and its features include the fiery tail of dust and gas that is formed when the Sun’s radiation burns a comet’s icy surface.
While Oumuamua was detected just as it was leaving our solar system, the new visitor is travelling inbound – giving enough time for scientists to be prepared and study it. The comet is expected to go past Mars sometime in October this year. Going by its current trajectory, it will be closest to Earth on December 29 – around 180 million miles away. On December 7, it will be close to the Sun. Scientists say that the object is moving too fast for it to be captured by the Sun’s gravity – another sign that it does not belong to our solar system.
Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory told Business Insider that the inbound comet was the next best thing to sending a probe to a different solar system. The comet is also bigger and brighter than Oumuamua which means scientists will be able to collect more data on the comet’s composition and its light, which could provide clues on its chemical composition. While Oumuamua had a radius of 200 metres, this comet is observed to be around 3 km wide.
The comet was first discovered on August 30 2019 by an amateur astronomer from Ukraine named Gennady Borisov. Astronomers have now provisionally verified its presence. When its interstellar origins are confirmed, its new name will start with 2I – as it is the second interstellar object to enter our solar system.
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